Megaplex 42: Working on Cyberpunk Environments

Megaplex 42: Working on Cyberpunk Environments

Travis O’Connor talked about Folkvangr and Baphomet, two environments that are part of his larger cyberpunk project Megaplex 42 created during his studies at Vertex School.

Introduction

My name is Travis O’Connor, and I’m a 3D Environment Artist with a penchant for exploring dystopian settings. As far back as I can remember, I’ve always had a passion for building worlds and telling stories within them, and in hindsight, it feels like a natural progression to go from action figures to lego to drawing and ultimately game art. 

I got into tabletop RPGs around middle school, and in high school, I ended up exploring more of those RPGs online. I was never really satisfied with the approximations that either came from purely text-based scenarios, or wildly inaccurate modded environments running on borrowed assets, so I decided to get involved and take a stab and build some environments of my own. That led to working on a bunch of fan projects and discovering a niche therein that resulted in a decent amount of commissioned work too. 

On the professional level, I worked on environments for a humble indie game by the name of Hum-Drum Experiences, a 3rd person project developed by my good friend Mark, with character art from his girlfriend Zil. I was also fortunate enough to land some QA work with 2K Vegas, where I got to look under the hood of the AAA process, working on games like NBA2K, Bioshock, Battleborn, and occasionally Mafia 3.

Joining Vertex School

For starters, the entirety of my workflow was more or less a byproduct of several years of trial and error amongst fellow devs/artists. Even if I could produce decent looking scenes like in Hum-Drum, I wasn’t entirely sure how much of the art was being built properly. I was still using Quixel Suite 2, knew nothing about Substance Painter, didn’t know how to use ZBrush, and had a very rudimentary understanding of high-poly-to-low-poly. I didn’t know how far trimsheets could go, or what exactly made textures “work” beyond thinking “Eh, this looks about right.” My knowledge gap was so wide that I didn’t have the vocabulary to even list everything within said gap.

Ultimately, Vertex School (Game Art Institute at the time) had an ad on instagram and I immediately looked into it; I felt that I had just enough experience and drive for a "bootcamp" course to be exactly what I needed. I immediately recognized Ryan Kingslien’s name from podcasts and tutorials I had seen in the past and saw that he was also working alongside other artists active in the industry and signed right up. 

Project "Folkvangr":

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Folkvangr and Baphomet: Story Behind the Environments

When growing up, a lot of my early influences came from the Cyberpunk genre. Cyberpunk 2077’s got an aesthetic that matches what I would have imagined the not-so-distant future to look like when I was younger, so it was definitely a huge source of inspiration, alongside RSI’s Star Citizen. Ultimately, I ended up pulling from an original setting called Cocoon, which was created primarily by my friend El, with help from my buddy Steve Shaw, me, and a host of other collaborators. The setting itself is farther in the future, but still very much a love letter to Pondsmith’s Cyberpunk, Blade Runner, Neuromancer, Deus Ex, and just about any other icon from the genre you can imagine. So it was easy to have some creative freedom while still having room to pay homage to those icons, as well as my friends who’ve kept me inspired. 

Project "Baphomet":

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As for the projects themselves, they were very much iterative. I started out wanting to do something from Deus Ex concept art, then moved on to more of a hallway to keep a more manageable scale, only to scrap that and start building something like an alley, which was the point where I decided on Cocoon as my setting. Therein, it’s common for salvagers to make trips to Earth and gather up lost technology and other valuables to exchange at specific terminals for money, so I knew I wanted to include one of those terminals. The only other thing I knew was that I wanted it to take place somewhere inside of a Megaplex, which is essentially a massive apartment structure building near big enough to be its own self-contained town. This initial scene grew into what became that crime-scene at the bar, Folkvangr. It was also my capstone project for Environment Artist Bootcamp at Vertex.

In the Bootcamp’s follow-up course, so much of our time was spent sharpening the tools to actually make our way into the industry itself that I knew I’d have to keep the scope of my second project contained as well. A follow-up to my prior scene seemed like a natural way to do that. If Folkvangr created some kind of intrigue by inviting the viewer to question what was waiting down that corridor, this new project would take place on the other side. That’s how Baphomet came to be, and the two combined to become Megaplex 42. 

As for the storyline, it’s fairly straight-forward. Someone was getting ready to sell their salvage when they were attacked. A firefight breaks out in front of the bar, and the suspect flees, presumably with the salvage in tow, since it’s nowhere to be found. The violence continues down the adjacent corridor, where the suspect made his or her escape. Beyond that, things are intentionally vague. Was it a robbery gone wrong? A hit intended to be disguised as such? Were the pedestrian gangsters defending their turf, private security for the initial John Doe, or just some unfortunate people who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time? Looking closely at the graffiti in Baphomet, one might even wonder if the violence was religiously motivated. In any case, with the scenes being art for interactive media, I wanted to engage the viewer by leaving evidence of questions and very little answers. I can’t take all the credit for that iteration by any means though, as Ryan Kingslien and Simon Fuchs were providing great feedback every step of the way, as well as my fellow artists in the Bootcamp.

Modeling

My modeling workflow was actually pretty straight-forward. I went through a couple of blockouts and once Simon gave me the green light, I started thinking about what could fit into trimsheets and what I wanted to make specific models of. The process was very much your typical High/Midpoly baked to low-poly, all modeled in Maya, and then baked/textured in Substance Painter. Being used to low-poly models, I tried to keep most assets under a thousand tris so that I could spend more on things like the corpses and main sign, ranging closer to 2-3.5 thousand, at least in Folkvangr. I made use of decals to give the scene more specific bits of personality, as well as blood splatters, generic wear, and small trash elements from Megascans to stay on time.

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With Baphomet, I decided to spend a little bit more on cloth elements and weapon props, but much of the environment made more use of floaters as well as deferred decals. That method allowed me to get even better use out of my trim sheets without everything looking exactly the same. Pipes were the typical process of shafts, elbows and connectors fit to splines and placed by hand. In total, I think I put together about 47 models and a handful of trim sheets between both scenes.  

Texturing

Textures were where I got my start in 3D, so I had a lot of fun working with surfaces here. For both projects, I tried to keep a production mindset of getting it done, looking right, and on-time, then using whatever tools I needed to in order to make that happen. Thus, the first thing I did was build some trim-sheets to use on things like wall panels, power cables, scaffolds, and other simple background pieces. That helped me produce those assets and their variants quickly, with efficient polycounts and room to iterate as-needed.

The next order of business was the primary surfaces: concrete, and… variations of concrete. I turned to Megascans here, but I rarely take a Megascans texture and use it straight-away. I spent a good bit of time blending concretes to find something that fit what I had in mind, using tileable textures on much of the architecture itself and accenting them with a combination of custom decals and some from Megascans to add some personality to each area. This is where some basic storytelling started to come together, as I’d ask myself questions like “What might have damaged this surface?” or “Where would grime congregate after a rainy day?”.

When it came to individual assets, on the other hand, I spent more time working with them in Substance Painter. I ported some of my mixed Megascans materials into Substance to use as a base and then went through the process of “building the machine”, as Ryan calls it, creating all my layers of dust, grime, and damage that I could then save as smart materials and tweak on a case-by-case basis. That ended up making it way easier to have very specific information in the texture of each asset but still keep things consistent with the scene. 

In Baphomet specifically, I wanted to do more with the floor than a repeating tile, so I made more trimsheets there using the high-low-poly workflow, a little sculpting, and then reusing my Megascans concretes in Substance Painter. 

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Lastly, I modeled out some bullet casings to litter about and placed blast holes in the walls and other assets as floaters where needed. The little things like trash and cigarette butts came from Megascans specifically.

Graffiti and Signs 

A lot of the signage actually came late in the process in both scenes. I knew I wanted to make references to Cocoon, so my good friend El sent me a couple of the logos she had created for that setting. You can see them in subtle areas like the salvage terminal and the rolling shutters next to Folkvangr. Beyond that, almost all of the signs and graffiti came about as last-minute details while I was sort of crunching to meet my deadlines. For the graffiti, I just looked up some generic graffiti font generators, typed up a thing or two, saved the image, and then ported it into a material instance. Those are mostly inside jokes or the occasional reference to music that kept me within the mood/theme of the project.

As for the warning sign, I followed a tutorial from the youtube channel UnrealCG. Its effect wasn’t exactly what I was going for but I felt it was close enough to give me something to experiment with. As soon as I had a grid of flowing dots, I closed the tutorial and started playing with my own design for the sign. As I started playing with the material, I found that the flowing grid effect responds to normal maps, so I baked my sign down and adjusted the material instance until I had something I really liked.

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With Folkvangr being so iterative, the bar and its sign came towards the very end of the project. (At one point, the sign legitimately read “PLACEHOLDER”). I was in a rush when I decided to name it as an homage V411-Hall-A, so I opened up Maya’s text creator and installed a Cyberpunk 2077-inspired font, and just wrote it out. From there it was as simple as extruding the text, retopologizing, and UV mapping it. The little skull was traced from an image of a cat skull. Folkvangr being the domain of Freya, I thought of her cat-pulled chariot and it all fit the overall themes of death in the scene. The glowing effect there was simply an emissive material instance slapped onto some extrusions from the text.

I had more fun with the signage in Baphomet, which also came late in the project. I was listening to a lot of Black Metal bands at the time and the idea of using Baphomet as an analog of transhumanism just popped into my head while working on some materials. Once I came up with the logo, I made an emissive decal out of it, slapped it onto the side of a building, and thought, “Yep, this works”. They were one of the more fun parts of the project to work on, even if they’re functionally some of the simplest.

Dead Bodies

The corpses also came at the very end of production, partly because I thought the scenes didn’t absolutely need them (in hindsight, I don’t think Folkvangr in particular would work without them). Being in that production mindset, I was as concerned with quick and clean results as I was about it looking right. 

Long story short, I went into Marvelous Designer, did a couple of poses of default male and female models, then threw a tarp over them. I did a little sewing for the body bag in particular, but other than that, it was exported to Maya, UV’d and retopo’d, then textured in Substance Painter. Any cloth simulation can work for this type of thing, but I figured it’d be a decent opportunity to get my hands on MD and learn the basics.

Lighting

Lighting was another area that grew iteratively in Folkvangr, as the scene went through so many iterations in terms of its design and layout. As I drew closer to a final build, I decided to gut the lighting completely and build it back up from the ground up with what I’ve come to call the isolation method: starting with a single light source and building a “layer” of lighting as if that source was the only one in the scene, with all the reflected light it would realistically generate. Once a source is done, I package it into a folder, toggle it off and then move onto the next one, until I can turn them all on and make my final tweaks. This ended up giving me the best look visually, but I experimented with combining that method with baked lighting generated directly from emissive materials as well.

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Rendering

The scene is rendered in good old Unreal Engine 4, using cinematic cameras to tweak post-processing effects on a per-shot basis. For me, it’s often a process of going into those post-processing settings and tweaking as much as possible until it just… looks right. Fortunately, UE4’s got a natural beauty to it even with completely default settings, so unless you’re going for something really stylized you can really get away with minor tweaks to those settings. I found myself spending more time focusing on fine-tuning the bloom and exposure settings, and really trying to lock in the right color grading to match the mood of the scene. Beyond that, it was mostly a matter of adjusting the actual camera effects to get a more cinematic (and thus, somewhat less natural) look to the scene, again on a per-shot basis. Chromatic aberration for example only makes it into a couple of shots… But with cinematic cameras, you can easily toggle between those shots and have all of your settings ready to go!

Feedback

In all honesty, I probably wouldn’t have gotten either project done without the mentors. For an artist, the concept of standing on the shoulders of giants couldn’t be more true. In the Bootcamp, Ryan Kingslien helped me clean up my high-low/midpoly workflows, and took me from having never touched Substance Painter to being able to use it better than I could Quixel Suite (which I had been using for 3 years before starting the Bootcamp.) The guy’s as strong an educator as he is an artist, to say the very least. More than anything, he helped me hone in on the production artist mindset.

Simon Fuchs was my direct mentor for the environment portion of the Bootcamp, and I didn’t fully understand trimsheets until working with him. He was the one who helped me navigate problems like the massive scale of my would-be Deus Ex project, or addressing the very dull composition of my would-be corridor. At no point did he try to take the reins from me, but he gave me direction in terms of where to look and find things like concept art, material definition, and composition. Again, they didn’t just help me make the project better but helped me build the skill with the tools necessary to even make the attempt. One look at the iterations will show just how far they advanced my modeling, texturing, lighting, composition, set dressing, and storytelling capacity.

What's Next?

As for what I want to do next, the short answer is to look for work! Artistically though, I’m far from done with the cyberpunk genre, so it’s a safe bet that my next project will head in that direction. With that said, I’m a huge fan of dark fantasy, dieselpunk, steampunk, and cosmic horror, so it’s only a matter of time before I get back to exploring those as well. Stay tuned!

Travis O’Connor, 3D Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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